Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Posts of 2017

Another year of blogging has come and gone.  Consistency remains a challenge, but I have committed to writing at least one post a week.   I also discovered Grammarly a few months back and have fallen in love with this tool.  Since I am not a strong writer to begin with, this tool, along with the superb proofreading by my mom, has helped to get thoughts articulated more clearly.  As I reflect on my own growth and learning over the year I can definitely see how this has impacted my writing as well as my work with schools, districts, and organizations. Evidence, accountability, research, and efficacy were the most common themes woven into the majority of my writings, which resonated loudly with readers of this blog.  

Without further ado, here are my top posts from 2017:

Competencies vs. Skills

As the world continues to change at an exponential rate there needs to be more of a focus on preparing competent learners as opposed to those who are just skilled. Skills focus on the “what” in terms of the abilities a student needs to perform a specific task or activity. They don’t provide enough connection to the how. Competencies take this to the next level by translating skills into behaviors that demonstrate what has been learned and mastered in a competent fashion. Success in a digital world will rely on much more than skills.  It's time to shift our focus and energy on developing and assessing core and innovative competencies that will serve all students now and in the future. 

Is Technology Being Integrated Effectively?

The key word in the title above is effective as it means different things to different people. The question provides a great opportunity for all of us to critically reflect upon the current role technology plays in education.  Effective use should result in evidence of improved learning outcomes, alignment to standards, going well beyond just increases in engagement, informing instruction, and transforming assessment.  Taking a critical lens to why and how technology is being used in classrooms and schools will only help improve efficacy (more on this below).

A Pedagogical Shift Needed for Digital Success

This post represents a much deeper dive into the topic of effective use. The main focus is how educators can use the Rigor Relevance Framework to improve instructional design.  It provides a solid lens to look at the learning tasks that students are engaged in and redesigns them in ways that move away from telling us what they know and instead showing whether or not they actually understand. Pertinent examples are illustrated to show what rigorous digital performance tasks look like in practice. 

Efficacy in Digital Learning

In short, efficacy is the degree to which desired outcomes and goals are achieved. Applying this concept to digital learning and innovative ideas can go a long way to solidifying the use of technology as an established practice, not just a frill or add-on. This is just the beginning. When integrating technology there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes. In this post, I highlight 5 key areas that can put your classroom, school, district, or organization on a path to digital efficacy. These include essential questions, research, practicality, evidence/accountability, and reflection. To learn more about how efficacy can be achieved check out the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA).

10 Tips to Make Learning REAL

My first post of 2017 really resonated with readers. It encouraged educators and schools today to make learning REAL: relevant, engaging, authentic, and lasting. In addition to explaining why this is important, the how was mapped out through various practical tips and examples. 

Well, there you have it.  Thanks for reading and here’s to an amazing 2018!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What's Holding You Back?

If it's important you'll find a way. If it's not, you'll find an excuse.” - Ryan Blair

There are many iterations to the quote above, but all of them hammer home a very important point.  Excuses hold many of us back from achieving goals and success.  I have tackled this topic in the past but wanted to revisit it after watching a powerful video recently. This sparked me to search out some other perspectives on the subject. I love this thought from Caroline Madormo:
Tonight before bed, pull out your trusty journal and start making a list of all of the reasons that you haven’t been able to achieve your dreams. Think of every reason big and small, and then read over that list. As you read over your list, notice that these reasons on the page are keeping you from getting the results you want and need to move forward.
Next comes the tricky part. Take a deep breath and consider the fact that each and every reason you wrote down is actually an excuse. Don’t beat yourself up or make things worse than they are. We all do it. Simply go through your list and say to yourself, “I forgive myself for using this excuse. I am ready to go bigger.”
When we value something, there is more resolve to overcome obstacles and challenges to accomplish a specified goal.  Many times it is our mindset that holds us back.  When you really think about it the number one adversary that each of us faces on a daily basis rests between our shoulders. We think we can't do certain things due to physical or mental limitations.  In some cases this might be true, passion has a funny way of helping us overcome certain perceived limitations. When passion is combined with intrinsic motivation, the impossible suddenly becomes possible. 

I, for one, can think back to many instances in both my professional and personal life where excuses got the better of me.  Lately, I have been much better on this front as I have tried to foster more of a growth mindset.  My thinking was pushed even further when I watched the video below.  Take a few minutes to watch yourself and be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster as Cliff Devries shows all of us that excuses should not hold us back.

After watching and reflecting on this video, I am going to think twice about any excuse I might develop that prevents me from at least not trying to accomplish a goal or task. 

What's holding you back? 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Learning Walks

Successful change and consistent improvement rely on many interconnected factors. I mention this, as it is important to note that it isn’t one particular action or person that ultimately moves an idea or initiative into something that positively impacts school culture.  This applies to the success that my staff and I were able to be a part of during our digital transformation a few years back.  The focus might have been on digital, and I was the initial catalyst that got the ball rolling, but it was the collective action of my teachers, students, and other administrators who embraced different and better while showing evidence of improvement that resulted in improved outcomes.  

What many people also don’t realize is that even though all eyes were on the digital aspects of our transformation, it was the continuous focus on improving teaching and learning that ultimately led to results. I have routinely written and spoken about the concept of a Return on Instruction (ROI), which states that when integrating technology or implementing innovative ideas the result should be evidence of improved student learning outcomes. This makes sense on many fronts, as we are accountable first and foremost to our learners as well as our other stakeholders.  To help achieve an ROI we increased the number of formal observations and evaluations, collected learning artifacts (lesson plans, assessments, student work, etc.) and had staff create portfolios to show growth and changes to practice.  Additionally, my admin team and I conducted learning walks every day.

The process of learning walks or walk-throughs as many schools refer to them is to get a glimpse of what is happening in classrooms to then provide non-evaluative feedback for improvement.  They serve an integral role as “soft” accountability mechanisms to spark conversations and reflections on practice.  The more we observe and talk about practice the better equipped we are to make and lead change.  Another positive outcome of learning walks is the building of better relationships since the non-evaluative nature of the process focuses on meaningful growth around targeted look fors. We developed look fors that aligned to both our McREL observation/evaluation tool to prepare teachers for these in the future and the purposeful use of technology to improve student learning. 

It’s been a few years now since I left the principalship to pursue my new career as a Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).  In addition to keynote presentations and workshops I typically facilitate, I have also been engaged in job-embedded coaching with districts across the country.  One district, in particular, is the Downingtown Area School District (DASD) in Pennsylvania.  Their leadership team, comprised of building and district administrators as well as instructional coaches, has worked face to face with me on a deep dive into the Pillars of Digital Leadership.  They have also been completing job-embedded tasks after these sessions and completed a reflective questionnaire as part of ICLE’s Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process.   Our collective goal is to create an immersive experience that moves beyond the typical one and done professional development.

Under the leadership of Matt Friedman and Jonathan Blow from Downingtown, coaching days with me were added so that we could all get into classrooms and conduct learning walks.  The inherent value of this exercise was to observe and collect evidence to determine instructional areas that needed the most focus.  After our first session, which was very successful based on the feedback received, they pushed me to think about targeted look fors that could be integrated into our next set of learning walks to support their digital transformation efforts across the district further.  Challenge accepted! 

Below are the look fors I developed that would later be integrated into a learning walk form:

  • Learning targets (objective/concept what are students expected to learn/do)
  • Standard alignment 
  • What are learners doing?
  • What is the teacher doing? (direct instruction, modeling, monitoring, facilitation, etc.)
  • Authentic context – Do the students know how their learning aligns to or how it can be applied to a real-world context? Do they understand why they are learning what they are and how they will use it?
  • Level of questioning (Rigor Relevance Framework – creating, evaluating, analyzing, applying, understanding, remembering)
  • Means of assessment (formative, summative)
  • Reflection - Is there an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning at some point?
  • Rigor Relevance Quad alignment (Which quad does the lesson or activity align to?)
  • Device Use (passive or active learning) - Passive (note taking, digital worksheet, consuming content) vs. Active (creating, applying, collaborating, synthesizing, etc.)
  • Student agency (voice, choice, advocacy) – Are students empowered to own their learning (blended/personalized/virtual learning options, they select tool to be used, etc.)
  • Use of classroom/school space (arrangement, furniture, choice, flexibility, comfort, lighting, temperature, mobility, acoustics, etc.) – Are desks in rows or arranged in a way to foster collaboration? Are there flexible/comfortable seating options? Does the room offer an appropriate level of stimulation? Would you want to learn in this space?

After sharing the areas of focus above, Jonathan created a Google Form for the Downingtown leaders to use as we all engaged in learning walks across the district.  You can access and download the form HERE if you wish.  The group conversations and reflection that ensued after the walks were conducted was terrific!  My role was to act as a facilitator to engage the group in critical discussions on what they saw. As you see from the form, the primary focus is on learning, not technology.  The two elements should go hand in hand, not treated as separate entities.  It is also important to note that not every lesson should or will incorporate technology. 

With any learning walk form or tool, there has to be a great deal of flexibility regarding how you use it. You would be hard pressed to see all of the look fors listed above as a learning walk is brief and only gives you a snapshot of what is (or isn’t) taking place. This is why I encouraged DASD leaders to take pictures of learning artifacts and ask questions of both the students and learners to develop a more holistic view.  Another way to use it would be to just focus on 3-4 look fors during a walking cycle. However, the most critical aspect of the learning walk process is what is done afterward to improve practice.  Collaborative discussion as a leadership team about what can be improved as well as timely feedback to teachers is both crucial for success.  

If you have any feedback on the look fors or the learning walk form please share in the comments below. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Blended Instruction vs Blended Learning

Schools continue to make investments in technology to engage students better, improve outcomes, and prepare all learners for the new world of work.  We are beginning to see more and more innovative uses of technology not just to personalize, but also to make the learning process more personal.  When a solid pedagogical foundation is in place, the stage is set to challenge students to demonstrate thinking and learning in ways that we could never have imagined a few short years ago. This, combined with relevance grounded in authentic contexts and applications, empowers students to own their learning. 

As I continue to think through the use of technology in schools I am always drawn back to this guiding question – How can students use technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?  To improve the learning experience for kids, we must continue to develop ways where technology becomes a ubiquitous component of our work, but also leads to a demonstrated improvement in practice.  Here is where the tool supports or enhances the pedagogical technique to aid in conceptual mastery, construct new knowledge, or demonstrate learning through the creation of a learning artifact. One such method that is rapidly gaining traction is blended learning. 

Blended learning is one of many strategies that can add a level of personalization while also making the experience a bit more personal with the right conditions.  However, there seems to be a bit of confusion as to what blended learning is or the conditions that have to be established for it to improve feedback, differentiate instruction and empower learners.  Based on what I have seen during my work in schools and through the sharing on social media, the majority of what educators are calling blended learning is blended instruction.  Here is the difference:
Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. 
For me at least, the distinction above brings a great deal of context to the discussion of how technology can improve learning for our students.  Now I am not saying it is bad practice when educators integrate tools such as Kahoot, Plickers, Socrative, Mentimeter, Padlet, and much more into their instruction.  As long as the level of questioning focuses on the higher levels of knowledge, technology and students can show what they understand that’s a good thing. However, this is not blended learning.  To see some of the many-blended learning models available click HERE.  If students genuinely own their learning, then they have to have some level of control over path, place, and pace while receiving more personalized feedback regarding standard and concept attainment. 

The image below outlines some critical considerations when incorporating blended learning in the classroom or school.

I have been very impressed by how Kirk Elementary and Wells Elementary in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) have been implementing blended learning on their campuses. In each case, the station rotation model has been the preferred strategy. I have observed students rotating through various stations that include teacher-directed, independent reading or practice using technology, formative assessment, flipped activity, and collaborative problem-solving.  In some cases, students have individual learning playlists to work through. Students rotate through the various stations, and this is typically triggered by music.  The use of mobile technology and flexible seating provides students choices as to where they will learn. In the example above technology is blended into their learning experience so that students have some control over path, pace, and place.

All in all, the significant shift that we should focus on is what the student is purposefully doing with the technology. Student agency is at the heart of effective blended learning. It is also important that it supports high-level learning, provides better means of assessment, and improves feedback. Blended instruction is a start, but blended learning is where our practice should move.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

To Move Forward We Need to Let Go

We can't be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don't have something better.”  ― C. JoyBell C.

There is nothing easy about change.  The process is fraught with many obstacles and challenges.  Once such challenge that I have yet to write about is that for many of us it is tough to let go of certain things. Our reluctance or inability to move forward when faced with a decision to remain the course or move into uncharted territory can stop the change process dead in its tracks before it even has a chance to begin.  Typically, there are many factors in play, but three common behaviors that keep many of us stuck in our ways include fear, mental habits, and stubbornness. During different points of my professional career, I had to come to grips with each of these factors and how they were paralyzing my role in the change process.  Once I was able to overcome them the next step was helping others to do the same.

We are all afraid of something.  However, we cannot let it stop us from improving professional practice.  Fear of the unknown or failure holds us back from moving forward with change.  I love this quote from Zig Ziglar, “F-E-A-R has two meanings: 'Forget Everything and Run' or 'Face Everything and Rise.' The choice is yours.” Life is all about choices.  We can ill afford to allow fear to hold our learners and us back from what’s possible.  It is essential to understand that if we fear the risk, then we will never reap the reward that taking the risk provides.  When trying something new or different the chances are good that you will fail.  If and when you do, learn from the experience and use the power of reflection to improve practice or yourself. By letting go of some of your fear you will be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Another issue many people face and have a difficulty overcoming is mental habits. As Jason Silva states in one of my favorite videos, “Once we create a comfort zone we rarely step outside that comfort zone.” When it comes to education, we see many practices that fall into this category, but more on these later.  The toughest adversary that many of us face rests between our shoulders in the form of our minds.  We often think we can’t do certain things or we have been lulled into a sense of complacency.  Without opening up the mind to new ideas and ways of doing things, change will never happen. Think about your mental habits that are holding you back from implementing innovative change. What do you need to let go of first to improve? How might you help your learners do the same within their context?

The last issue that plagues the change process is good old-fashioned stubbornness.  It is a trait that can destroy friendships, marriages, and professional relationships.  I don’t know if anyone knows for sure why people are stubborn, but my thinking is that both fear and mental habits play their part.  What are you holding on to that might not be in the best interests of your students or the people you work with? I believe this question can serve as a catalyst to begin the process of overcoming certain elements that negatively impact not only our practice but also the relationships we strive to create and support.  

Below is a list of five things that I believe need to be overcome if meaningful change and improvement in education is the goal. Each is influenced by fear, mental habits, and/or stubbornness in some way.

Status Quo

The status quo in schools is like a warm blanket on a frigid night – no one wants to get out from underneath it. When it has a tight grip on a school culture, any attempt at change is met with resistance or blatant inaction.  You can all but hear the whispers of this too shall pass, we’ll wait it out, they won’t hold us accountable, so I’m not changing, why risk it or everything is great because we have high test scores. Will you challenge the status quo to improve the educational experience for your learners?

Traditional Grading Practices and Homework

There is a great deal of research out there that supports changes to how educators grade and the use of homework. In light of what the research says and the negative impact on our learners, it has been difficult for educators and schools to let go of these two practices. We often assign homework and grade a certain way because that was either what was done to us as students or what we were taught to do during our teacher preparation programs. One of the most challenging initiatives I ever led as a principal was working with my staff to change how they graded. As our district took on homework. What will you do to improve these practices?

Drive-By Professional Development

In Learning Transformed Tom Murray and I highlight the research that illustrates how drive-by professional development has little, if any, impact on professional practice. The concept of development as a whole needs to change to a focus on professional learning that is research-based, job-embedded, practical and takes into account the real challenges educators face. On top of all this, follow-up and accountability are crucial if the goal is to scale the changes that are being supported by the investments in professional learning. How will you work to improve professional learning in your school or district?

Technology Avoidance or Low-Level Use

This is a two-part scenario.  On the one hand, some people loathe technology and fail to embrace how it can transform teaching, learning, and leadership. The fact is technology is here to stay.  The key is to develop ways to integrate it with purpose aligned to research-based pedagogical practices. On the other hand, some people are in love with the stuff and toys.  Technology has the potential to support and enhance learning in ways that we can never have imagined a few years ago. However, we must not fall victim to the engagement trap and use technology in ways that just support low-level learning.  How will you empower your kids to think and use technology to show that they understand while unlocking their potential?


Has someone wronged you, rubbed you the wrong way, or just irritated you for whatever reason? Get over it!  Please take a minute to read this article by Nancy Colier on the subject. As she states, “It’s not about the person who wronged you. It’s about who you want to be.” She continues to explain that the problem with grudges is that they don’t serve the purpose that they are there to serve. “They don’t make us feel better or heal our hurt. When it is all said and done we end up as proud owners of our grudges, but still without the experience of comfort that we ultimately crave, that we have craved since the original wounding.”  What grudges are you willing to let go of to move forward for the greater common good?

Once we better understand the causes of the adversity to change we can then begin to move forward. However, to do so, we must be willing to let go of practices and behaviors that are holding us, our schools, and most importantly our learners from opportunities for growth and improvement.

To move forward, we must be willing to let go.